Isha Upanishad

by Swami Nirvikarananda | 45,666 words

This is the English translation of the Isha Upanishad: a key scripture of the Vedanta sub-schools, and an influential Śruti to diverse schools of Hinduism. The text discusses the Atman (Soul, Self) theory of Hinduism, and is referenced by both Dvaita (dualism) and Advaita (non-dualism) sub-schools of Vedanta. The name of the text derives from the ...

A Warning

The Isha Upanishad next proceeds to describe, in five memorable verses, the nature of the Atman and the fruits of its realization. But before doing so, it deems it necessary to utter a note of warning in its third verse, which reads:

असुर्य नाम ते लोका अन्धेन तमसावृताः ।
तांस्ते प्रेत्याभिगच्छन्ति ये के चात्महनो जनाः ॥

asurya nāma te lokā andhena tamasāvṛtāḥ |
tāṃste pretyābhigacchanti ye ke cātmahano janāḥ ||

(3rd Mantra, Isha-Upanishad)

‘In to the worlds of the asuras, devils, enveloped in blinding darkness, verily do they go after death who are slayers of the Atman, the Self.’

In this verse we are warned as to what happens to us if we forget and neglect the Atman, if we ignore It, and live merely trivial lives. A deep philosophical truth is couched in mythical, symbolic language. Life lived without the consciousness of our divine nature is trivial; it is life of darkness and sorrow. The word ‘darkness’ used in this verse is not physical darkness, but the darkness of ignorance; it is spiritual blindness. The verse compares this darkness to hell. In myths, hell is abode of the asuras, the demons. An alternating reading is asurya, literally ‘without sunlight’, absolute darkness. Imagine a cavern which has been dark from the beginning of time, a place where the rays of the sun have never penetrated. What would be the condition of a man if he had to spend his whole life in such a cavern? Such is the condition of one who passes through life without the least awareness of his divine nature. It is this awareness that evolves the moral man, out of the given individual, to ignore this ever-present reality of the Self is to keep away from light and clutch at shadows.

The verse further tells us that those who prefer to live in such spiritual blindness are really killing themselves. Ātmahana means ‘people who kill themselves’. In ordinary suicide we kill only the body, which is something external to us, but here we kill ourselves, our real Self. The death of the body is not so serious as the death of the soul. By neglecting our true nature, by ignoring it by clutching at the shadows of the non-Self all the time, we commit suicide of the most serious kind.

Shankaracharya, in his commentary on this verse, explains the nature of this extraordinary kind of suicide which the world practices on the widest scale. Says he:

अविद्यादोषेण विद्यामानस्यात्मनस्तिरस्करणादात्महनेत्युच्यते ।

avidyādoṣeṇa vidyāmānasyātmanastiraskaraṇādātmahanetyucyate |

“Because a man neglects his ever-present Self through the evil of ignorance (spiritual blindness), he is called ‘one who commits suicide”.

Clutching at the shadows of sensate experience, taking them to be the whole of reality, man ignores the infinite, immortal dimension of his own personality. This is the meaning of samsāra, worldliness, where man gets submerged in the object of his experience and the subject, his real Self, is enveloped in the darkness of unawareness; this is spiritual suicide. As we have already seen, to live in the world is not the same thing as being ‘worldly’. To live in samsāra is not the same thing as being a samsārin. As Shri Ramakrishna so beautifully expresses it in his parable, we all live in samsāra, which means the world. The saint and the sinner, even an incarnation of God, lives in samsāra. There is no harm in that, assures Shri Ramakrishna, but he adds, samsāra, the world, worldliness, should not live in us. A boat should be on water, but water should not be in the boat; for that is dangerous for the boat.

Worldliness is the negation of spiritual awareness. The animal bodies are meant for mere sense experience; they have no experience of the subject. The world of objects comprises their sphere of awareness and of pleasure and pain. It is only in the human body that subjective awareness emerges, the awareness of self as different from the non- self. Man at this stage still functions at the animal level; he has, however, the requisite equipment and means to deepen his self awareness and realize himself as the Atman, the eternal, pure, luminous, ever free Self, by controlling and disciplining his psycho-physical personality. But if, in spite of this capacity and opportunity, he fails to do so, and is content to submerge himself in the world of objects and things, he makes an utter fool of himself in spite of all his worldly success. This is spiritual suicide. Over and over again, the Upanishads exhort man to turn his attention to the realization of his true nature by properly using his nature-given equipment of body, senses and mind. They implore man not to convert his psycho-physical organism in to a tomb of his soul, but to move forward to evolve. This is the clear call of the Upanishads in one of their most memorable verses (Katha Upanishad, III.14), which Swami Vivekananda proclaimed from the housetops in East and West so forcefully in his oft-repeated clarion call: ‘Arise! Awake! And stop not till the goal is reached.’

The fate of those who fail to heed this call is described in this third verse of the Isha-Upanishad. Through spiritual blindness we enter into such forms and ways of life where we cannot get even the slightest inkling of this Atman, our true Self. There may be some people who do not mind being in darkness; but most people prefer to be in the light.

Among those who so prefer, there are varying levels and stages of achievements. Utter worldliness is a rare occurrence; most people do get, in the language of Wordsworth, ‘intimations of immortality’ at some time or other in their lives.

The experience may last hardly for a second, like raindrop in a hot sandy waste. So does wisdom come and go; the clouds open for a while, and the sun shines. But once more the clouds close together again and the vision passes. So we go on from day to day. But by utilizing all life’s experiences, by spending a little time each day in thinking, evaluating our actions, and giving momentum and direction to our lives, we shall be able to capture, for ever-lengthening periods, that fleeting vision that we have experienced; the ‘intimations of immortality’ become then a little more constant and steady.

The secret of spiritual progress is therefore to cultivate awareness of the Atman, our divine nature; to cultivate this constantly in and through all life’s experiences. It is this awareness that marks the difference between the worldly man and the spiritual seeker. In The Gospel of Shri Ramakrishna we find Shri Ramakrishna recounting the characteristics of the true seeker, and those of the worldly man. In vivid word-picture, Shri Ramakrishna describes the scene of a death of a worldly man. The old man is to die in a few minutes. His children and relatives are gathered around him, anxious and waiting. The old man looks around; he finds a lamp in the corner of the room with two wicks burning within it. Finding that more oil is being spent, he tells his son in a feeble voice to put out one of the wicks and save unnecessary expenditure of oil. Throughout his life he has been deeply attached to his wealth and never learned the art of spending it; never liked to part with it. Now death knocks at his door; he has to go, leaving all his wealth behind; but he does not realize it. His worldly infatuation does not allow him to think of God or the higher values of life even at that moment of crisis; he only thinks of saving his hard-earned wealth; wisdom does not dawn on him even as fleeting experience. What can be more pitiable than this? When we contemplate this scene our mind asks: is this the picture of human glory? Is this the limit which human intelligence and capacity can reach? The heart sinks at the very idea. If this is the highest man can achieve, woe unto humanity. But our heart assures us that such is not the case, and that that life is a failure in spite of his wealth and power. Such a man is a failure because he has not discovered that art of living, has not experienced the joy of living.

Pleasure comes from the contact of the senses with the sense objects, but bliss proceeds from the inner depth of the Self. The eternal spring of bliss lies within the heart of man; its realization is the perfection of life’s fulfillment, which is also wisdom, the fruition of and knowledge and experience. The art of living is therefore, to make this wisdom, and the peace and joy accompanying it, manifest in our lives. Wisdom, like the kingdom of heaven in the parable of Jesus (Luke, xvii. 20-21), is to be found not in some place remote from life, but within life itself:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
Neither shall they say, Lo here! Lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

Shri Ramakrishna spoke of ‘churning’ wisdom out of life as butter is churned out of milk. ‘If you mix milk and water’ he said, ‘you can separate them again only after much effort. But you first convert the milk into butter in water, it will not mix.’ This aptly describes the technique of living. Wisdom must be ‘churned’ out of life, and, armed with that wisdom, we can mix the world, engage in any activity, and live in any situation, without getting ‘diluted’ or lost. This is spiritual freedom, it is perfection. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’, exhorts Jesus (Matthew, v. 48). This perfection is the birthright of every man, woman, and child, says Vedanta.

The nature of the Atman, the divinity inherent in man, whose realization marks the culmination of the evolutionary process, forms he theme of the next three verses of the Isha Upanishad which we shall study next.